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Christmas will not be normal despite lockdown ending next month, Sunak warns

By Sam Blewett and Lewis McKenzie, PA Political Staff
·5 min read

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has warned that “Christmas is not going to be normal” despite England preparing to move out of lockdown and into a strengthened three-tier system of local coronavirus restrictions next month.

Boris Johnson will detail his “winter Covid plan” on Monday, setting out the restrictions to replace the national lockdown on December 2 and how people can spend the festive period.

Downing Street said more areas are expected to enter higher tiers next month and those tiers will be strengthened to safeguard the gains made during the four-week lockdown, but it is understood that the 10pm curfew on pubs and restaurants will be altered.

Mr Sunak said the localised tiered system is a “far better way” to tackle Covid-19 as he confirmed the Prime Minister’s plans, which were expected to be approved by the Cabinet on Sunday.

“I think, frustrating as it is for all of us, Christmas is not going to be normal this year,” he told Sky’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday.

“But that said, the Prime Minister and everyone else, we’re looking at ways to see how families can spend some time with each other over (the) Christmas period.

“Obviously that’s something that we would like to do and it’s been a difficult year for all of us, but as I said it’s not going to be a normal Christmas this year.”

He confirmed to The Andrew Marr Show on the BBC that plans to change the curfew period for pubs and restaurants is “definitely something we’re looking at”.

The Prime Minister is understood to be preparing to unveil a plan so that while last orders must be called at 10pm, people will get an extra hour to finish their food and drinks, with opening hours to be extended until 11pm.

Daily confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the UK
(PA Graphics)

Mr Johnson will announce the full plans for winter in the House of Commons on Monday.

But he runs the risk of a rebellion from backbench Conservative MPs when they vote on the restrictions in the days before they are scheduled to come into force on December 2.

On Saturday the coronavirus recovery group (CRG) of Tories resisting new curbs warned that they “cannot support” a tiered approach unless the Government produces a cost-benefit analysis showing they “will save more lives than they cost”.

The warning against measures inflicting “huge health and economic costs” came in a letter to the Prime Minister, which sources close to the group said had been signed by 70 Conservative MPs, though the group’s leaders were the only signatories identified.

But Mr Sunak suggested the Government will be unable to do this, paving the way for a sizeable revolt unless the Prime Minister can convince them otherwise.

“It’s very hard to be precise in estimating the particular impact of a one-week restriction,” the Chancellor told Ridge.

Global Covid-19 cases and deaths
(PA Graphics)

Labour has so far been supportive of the need for restrictions to slow the spread of Covid-19, and a full-scale Commons defeat on the plan is unlikely.

Ministers will detail what tier each area will be placed into on Thursday.

They are optimistic that restrictions can be gradually reduced in the run-up to spring. Providing vaccines are approved by regulators, the plan is for the rollout to begin next month before a wider programme in the new year.

When the Commons voted on the current lockdown earlier this month, 32 Conservatives rebelled to oppose the measures and 17 more, including former prime minister Theresa May, abstained.

Downing Street will hope an easing at Christmas, potential vaccines on the horizon and new scientific evidence will lessen the scale of a rebellion, with the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) expected to publish papers on Monday saying the previous tiers were not strong enough.

But the CRG letter said: “We cannot live under such a series of damaging lockdowns and apparently arbitrary restrictions, and expect our constituents to be grateful for being let out to enjoy the festive season, only to have strict restrictions imposed on them afterwards that cause them health problems and destroy their livelihood.”

Sage member Professor Calum Semple told Ridge “in reality we can’t ban Christmas” because it would “simply lead to breaches”.

And he said that any change to the 10pm curfew would be better informed by an understanding of human behaviour to prevent everyone filling the streets at closing time.

“History has got a lot to teach us, in the years of prohibition they tried to change the hours, they tried to say you could only drink if you had a meal, and everyone is very inventive and finds ways around it,” he said.

“Fiddling at the edges of something like drinking-up times or pubs’ closing times is simply not an effective mechanism.”

Sage colleague Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter said it was “perfectly reasonable” to return to a tiered approach but warned there would be costs of a national easing over Christmas would have costs.

“There will be a price to pay for it, obviously, you relax restrictions and infection rates go up, you constrain and infection rates will come down as they are going down at the moment,” he told Times Radio.

The Government announced a further 341 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Saturday, bringing the UK total to 54,626.

Labour’s shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds, in a speech ahead of the Downing Street announcement, said the nation could not be allowed to return “to the shambles we had before this lockdown” and called for “clarity” on economic support.

A Labour spokesman said “we will look closely at any proposals the Government brings forward” but called for “proper packages of support” for businesses that are unable to fully reopen.

“The previous system was failing – simply returning to it without other measures in place will not work,” he added.